Cuba has been beckoning with its atmosphere and history for more than one generation of sailors. Journalist Susie Carmody shares her impressions of a trip to Cuba on a yacht.
Paradise and yacht
Pirates and Spanish galleons, gangsters of the 60s and sparkling chrome Chevrolets, folk heroes such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro… Cuba enchants, Cuba beckons, Cuba does not wait!
After a month of cruising through Jamaica aboard Distant Drummer, our Liberty 458 sloop, we were in Montego Bay waiting for a fair wind. He who was supposed to carry us north across the Caribbean to an island that was once the jewel of the Spanish crown.
We planned to interrupt the passage from Jamaica to Cuba at Cayman Brac. Cayman Brac is a rocky island located about 80 miles east of Grand Cayman. However, the northeast trade winds were to change and intensify during the week. This would make anchorage here impossible.
So we took a new course straight for Cienfuegos on the south coast of Cuba. Almost all the way from Montego Bay to Cienfuegos we were close-hauled with constant tacking. The adventure is more than exciting.
We entered the lagoon at Cienfuegos and zigzagged our way between the red buoys that marked the channel to the city on the east side of the bay. Dropping anchor at the pier, we went ashore to comply with all legal formalities. Meanwhile, no long paperwork - all procedures were as simple as the pier at which we got up. Nothing extra. Only shop and customs. And all in one building.
History in every nook and cranny
Cienfuegos was founded in the early 1880s by French settlers from Bordeaux. The lush architecture around José Martí Central Park reflects the city's historical roots. We admired the majestic interiors of the cathedral, theater and other civil buildings, and then wandered through the shady colonnaded streets.
Cienfuegos is located on the south coast of Cuba and is a good starting point for exploring the island. Trinidad, an hour and a half away in a vintage Chevrolet Colectivo, is a well-preserved and restored Spanish colonial city. By the way, the word Colectivo refers to a public taxi. Or, in our opinion, a fixed-route taxi. It can be either a minibus or a passenger car.
Horse-drawn carts, cobbled streets and almost no modern buildings make you feel like you've stepped back in time. The mansions, built with proceeds from the sale of sugar in the 19th century, are open to the public. There are many restaurants where you can relax with a well-deserved beer while listening to the trovadores sing traditional Cuban ballads.
Santa Clara is another easy day trip from Cienfuegos. Located in the center of Cuba, it is best known for its monument to Che Guevara. It is located to the west of the city - his remains and the remains of 16 other Cuban and Bolivian revolutionaries rest in a crypt.
Havana - the capital of Cuba
For cruisers approaching Cuba from the north, Havana would be a natural stop along the route. However, since we weren't planning on going around the island, we decided to leave our Distant Drummer in Cienfuegos and visit the capital on the way. As we emerged from our crowded Colectivo (this time a dilapidated Lada) after a three-hour drive, we saw that Havana's turbulent history was clearly reflected in its streets.
Palaces, churches and old fortresses stand right next to crumbling Spanish houses. Obese women sit on the corners and smoke thick cigars, and the rhythms of rumba and salsa pour from all the bars. Every other car is an American classic in varying degrees of disrepair: a gleaming Chevy, a brightly colored Dodge, or a dull, rusty Buick with missing hubcaps.
Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is the heart of the city, built in the 17th century, and the only place where we met crowds of tourists. The area has undergone extensive redevelopment, with traditional Spanish houses converted into art galleries, gift shops and hotels. And on almost every corner you can find a bar, on the sign of which will show off: "This is where Hemingway drank."
Guarding the western side of the narrow entrance to Havana's harbor, Castillo de la Real Fuerza is the oldest fort in the Americas and now houses a fine Maritime Museum. We admired the chests with twisted eights (knots) and gold bars the size of a hockey puck. Next to it, there are beautiful porcelain and glassware. It has been carefully salvaged from shipwrecks scattered along the northern coast of Cuba and has been meticulously restored.
Preparing for the trip and problems with provisions
Back in Cienfuegos, we prepared to travel through the Jardines de la Reina, a series of mangrove islands that lie on the edge of a wide, shallow shelf. The shelf, meanwhile, stretches from Trinidad to Cabo Cruz. These remote uninhabited bays were discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and are now a national marine park.
Providing provisions for the trip was fraught with certain difficulties. The market in Cienfuegos offered eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, but finding meat, fish and other products was much more difficult. Supermarkets sell a large amount of a very limited range of goods, so there may be entire aisles with toilet paper, cans of olives, powdered milk and soap powder. But if you need a can of tuna, come back next week. The only product on sale with a wide selection was rum, of which we soon became connoisseurs.
We sailed from Cienfuegos to Cayo Breton, the northernmost of the Jardines. After an excellent night's sailing with a northerly breeze and a favorable easterly current, we rounded the red buoy marking the break in the reef at the entrance to Cayo Breton. At the same time, I had to dodge a large drifting iron shipping buoy.
As we approached the island, the sandy bottom gradually became shallow, and we threw anchor into the water at a depth of 3 meters. Although we were still some distance from the shore, this was an excellent decision as we were out of range of the sand fly clouds on the island.
It's easy to get lost exploring the winding channels that wind through the maze of mangroves on Cayo Breton, but the tall lighthouse on the island's western tip serves as a great landmark. With surprisingly calm weather, we enjoyed the silence of the lagoon, which was so tense that it seemed as if it was pressing on the ears.
One afternoon we visited a nearby fishing platform. We thought it was abandoned and were surprised to get a warm welcome from the local Pablo and other fishermen who worked on the platform. They stuffed our hands with lobster and invited us to dinner the next day. We took a bottle of rum with us and the fishermen served us a plate of grilled lobster and delicious garlic fish fried - one of the best dishes we had in Cuba!
Skippers cruising through the Jardines Islands can choose to sail inside or outside the bays. The first option is more protected from winds and bad weather, but scattered by unmarked reefs. The second is more exposed to wind and strong currents, but it will be much more difficult to suddenly run into a reef. Several passages allow passage between the islands, some of these channels are marked with buoys, but others are poorly mapped, so local knowledge is very important.
Depth exploration and relaxation near Cayo Caballones
After a warm welcome from the fishermen, we left Cayo Breton and moved along the outer side of the chain of islands to Cayo Caballones. While navigating the Jardines Islands, we found the Navionics charts to be a fairly reliable satellite so we weren't overly alarmed when the echo sounder abruptly increased depth from 10m to 1000m as we passed through a break in the reef. As we approached the island, the slope leveled out and we anchored. At that time there was less than a meter of water under the keel. When we looked down into the clear water, it seemed that we were standing on the sand.
The next day we spent several hours snorkeling on the reefs along the shore. We were blown away by the sheer number of fish: large schools of snappers and groupers, schools of black and white sergeantfish, and simply "clouds" of reef fish in countless combinations of yellow and turquoise.
Late in the evening, when the wind died down, the surface of the sea became smooth as glass. Rushing through the crystal clear waters on a dinghy was like zipping through corals on a flying carpet. We turned into the lagoon and enjoyed a sunny cocktail as we lazily drifted downstream through the mangroves.
Jardines de la Reina is a national marine park, and although anchoring without a permit is officially prohibited, park rangers usually turn a blind eye to this. The only place we found this observed was on Cayo Anclitas. Fishing is strictly prohibited in the marine park, except, of course, at public lobster fishing stations.
On Cayo Caguama, the southernmost island of Jardines, we disembarked to visit the park ranger's station. As we watched the caretakers feed dozens of iguanas rice, they began to tell us about the turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs along the coastline of the beautiful white sand beach.
ritual and ceremony
The next morning, before dawn, we set off for Cabo Cruz. As the sun rose, a gentle southerly breeze blew, and we went under the engine over the reef to go 60 miles to the southeastern tip of Cuba. The entrance to the channel in Cabo Cruz is clearly visible thanks to the buoys, and the breaking surf clearly outlines the edge of the reef.
In Cuba, upon arrival at the harbor, you must register with the Guarda fronteras service, and upon departure, a local pass is issued for passage to the next port of call. The port chief took our documents and let us go, but after a couple of hours he reappeared on a small fishing boat with his dog. This couple came on board to inspect our Distant Drummer. The boss wanted to check the yacht for drug and human smuggling.
In Cabo Cruz we waited a couple of days for a cold front to bring northerly winds to cross over to Santiago de Cuba. The first part of the voyage we sailed with a wind of 15-20 knots from the north and northeast. In the afternoon the wind eased and changed direction as we entered the lee of the Sierra Maestra. As the sun set, katabatic winds descended from the mountain peaks, gusting up to 30 knots. After a stormy night, we happily greeted the dawn over the magnificent Castillo del Morro that guards the entrance to Santiago.
We made our way down the winding, narrow channel into the harbor, relieved that we didn't run into any of the many oil tankers or large freighters. Several times a day, a small ferry departs from the pier to the city. We got off the ferry and took a taxi to Santa Ifigenia Cemetery to visit Fidel Castro's burial site, then drove back into town through the old Bacardi rum distillery, now home to the state brand Havana Club.
Among other things, we walked up the hill to the old town, which is a mixture of partly abandoned and beautifully restored Spanish buildings. We lazily wandered around the city and then stopped at a cafe on a terrace shaded by ancient trees in the Plaza de Dolores. It was the perfect place to relax with a cool mojito; senoritas strolled nearby, old women gossiped on a park bench, a troupe of street musicians played.
In the evening in Santiago we had the opportunity to attend a santeria ceremony. Like voodoo, Santeria is a religion based on Catholic beliefs mixed with the spiritual concepts of the Yoruba tribe of West Africa. Entering the temple, we knelt in front of the altar, and then went to the backyard, where we embraced a huge tree decorated with symbols and candles. Three men beat a frantic rhythm on the drums, and Balalavo (shaman) danced and sang songs of praise to the tree. Much rum was drunk, and our minds were completely absorbed in the flamboyant rituals.
The cruise along the south coast of Cuba was spectacular. Half a century of strict socialist dogma has instilled extraordinary stamina in people. Cuba lacked literally everything. But everywhere we went there was music, dancing and laughter. Ironically, the poverty of the communist years has preserved the beauty of the country, from fabulous cars to colonial architecture in cities, as well as the undeveloped coastline and pristine archipelagos of this enigmatic island.
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